“My mother always said that all the good things in life are gold… that means, of course, that to the rest goes the silver.” She spat those words, as if they were supposed to hurt.

“I’ll tell you why I know that’s true. The good in this world used to be mine. I had it all, and it all slipped from my grasp. I could have been happy, and you could have been… well, you know.

“There was a boy in my village, child. If you think you know where this story is going, realize there is no love in my tale. Gold of hair with jade-green eyes, this boy stood out among the dark-haired villagers… by design, of course. His family selected carefully to keep their bloodline pure. Their fairness must be maintained, lest they integrate with the common rabble.

“His name was Edmund, and he knew he was important. The Blythe family had more influence than anyone, and the coin to back it up. In truth, they owned that village, and none of us could deny it. As the eldest son of the great family, Edmund walked the town as if he were the crown prince. What a vile creature. I can’t recount the injustices he put the villagers through, I can’t excuse what we put up with. I could never love him, but I didn’t need to. He was mine regardless.

“You see, child, I was born with very little. The gods planted me in the dirt, with not a coin to my name, no hearth or home of my own. But they gave me a power, the means to seduce… and with this gift, I earned everything. Edmund was easy- the male heir must choose below his class, and I had the right hair color… Once I arranged our ‘chance’ encounter, it did not take long for him to fall. We were eighteen the first time he had his way. He was not tender for me, but I didn’t need his kindness… because now his fate was cast. He would have to marry, lest he father a bastard.

“Gods, I should have been happy enough with that lot. I was to marry into the Family, I would never work for anything again. Our wedding was to be at Spring’s first break. Yet I wanted even more. There was another, a silver-haired boy who worked the Blythe stables. Lucien was his name, three years our senior and certainly Edmund’s only friend. He was an elf like me, and we’re so rare in these parts… it did not hurt my chances. I wanted him, if only because Edmund was his friend. For weathering that miserable man’s abuse, didn’t I deserve that much? Nothing pleased me more than dishonoring Edmund in such plain sight.

“I took Lucien in the shadows, and our habit continued for many moons. I enjoyed the luxury of Blythe gold, but kept my silver-haired secret within reach. Yet as my wedding day approached, it quickly became apparent that I was with child. Edmund wanted to advance our marriage plans- after all, an heir born before wedlock is no heir at all. I agreed, for I knew how dangerous was my balance of gold and silver. I could not feel safe without that wedding ring.

“Yet I carried swiftly, and my child would not wait for the wedding day. We were made to deliver the child a moon before its time. I pleaded to every god I know for the infant to share my fair hair, to inherit Edmund’s jade eyes.

“But you were born with a crown of silver, your brown eyes wide open. You were the end of me.

“Edmund was no fool. The day you were born, he dragged Lucien up the hill to the Blythe mines, and he was out of my life forever. They say his screams subsided after three days, but I was not around to witness it. He let us live, but I had no ring to bind me to that place. Giving me one day to be gone, Edmund warned me that neither I nor my bastard would ever be welcome in the village again. So the forest was all that was left to us.

“Has it been fourteen years already? You know, I still get news from the village. Edmund wasted no time finding another, and married before the year had passed. His daughter is twelve now, she bears the golden locks that should have been yours. His son is younger, and someday he will inherit the Blythe empire.

“Gods, I would have all of life’s bounties if not for your silver hair! I wouldn’t have to live in this shack, hunting just to stay alive. And you would be the fair lady of the house. That night I left the homestead, I wanted to leave you in the river. I almost did, too, you better believe it. But the gods know it’s a sin to abandon a child. I kept you alive, but now neither of us will ever know happiness.

“Anyway. You’ll be of age in two years, and then we’ll both be free of each other. Whatever. Happy birthday, Silver.”

***

Silver was fourteen now, and she knew better than to shed tears in front of her mother’s dinner guests. That didn’t make it any easier to suffer their abuse. It was best to keep her head down, serve the food, and make an exit before her mother’s suitor lost his last inhibition. Yet this one was somehow worse than the rest- dirtier, disheveled, crude, more violent. Retch was his name, though she could hardly believe it. As he fawned over her mother, Silver caught him glancing at her with bloodshot, rabid eyes. 

“I’ll eat now, girl,” he hissed. Her mother rose from her drunken daze long enough to glare at Silver. 

“Don’t make us wait, Silver,” she managed to croak.

The girl nodded slightly, and turned her attention to the pot across the cramped shack. Even with her back turned, she could still feel the stranger’s gaze on her back. Retch was not the creepiest patron her mother had brought home, he wasn’t even close… but nobody had made Silver feel so uncomfortable in her own skin. 

It hardly mattered. If he was anything like the rest, her mother would use him up within the week and send him away, just a shade poorer and with only a few bad memories to show for it. Silver only had to endure him this one evening, maybe a few more. 

She fetched the stew, having no desire to draw out the meal any longer. Her mother had spared no expense with this dish; an overcooked slab of unseasoned venison drifted in a gray broth with a random selection of plants and seeds Silver had found in the forest. Indeed, her mother had doubled the effort she normally offered to her guests. Retch must be very special.

As she set the pot on the table, Silver shot Retch a look that reminded him he didn’t get to complain. ‘If you wanted a nice meal, you should have brought fancier liquor,’ her mother might have said… but in her current condition, she wouldn’t say it so eloquently. Retch turned away in disgust for a moment, but accepted the bowl offered to him, deciding he had too much to lose by worrying about it. 

“Can I go now,” Silver nearly whispered, not expecting a response. Her mother didn’t seem to hear. She downed the stew in several hideous gulps while beckoning her companion to dine with a similar urgency. 

“Hurry up and get it over with,” she barked at Retch. “I want to see what you brought.”

The man disregarded the stew, taking the opportunity to lay a wooden canister on the table. Having gained her attention, he sprang the canister open, spilling dozens of assorted pills. He began to sort them by color.

“These,” Retch began, sliding blue tablets across the table, “will get you high enough to properly enjoy the rest.” He cupped a cluster of red caplets and handed them over. “These will make you hallucinate. The rest are a surprise, but these,” he continued, separating the white pills, “as requested, are for the pain.”

“Oh perfect,” Silver’s mother grinned. She grabbed a few at random and tried to take them, before Retch stopped her. 

“Careful now,” he warned. “You only need one of each. And you should take it slowly, the way you’ve been drinking.”

“Whatever.” She threw back a few anyway and chased them down with liquor. She struggled briefly to stay alert, but soon she was comatose. Silver wondered if she should just slip out, or wait for her mother to awake and dismiss her. 

But Retch’s dark eyes bore into her, and she froze. He said nothing, only stared, as if waiting for Silver to act. She did not.

Minutes passed, and Retch had still not spoken. Silver reconsidered slipping out, but worried that he might follow her. Finally, she spoke up. “You should leave,” she stammered. “She’s out.”

“You know it’s your fault she does this,” the man responded.

“I’m sorry?”

“You should be. It’s also your fault she calls on people like me.” Retch was grinning now. “In fact, most of the things you hate about her are your fault.”

“Why are you telling me this?” Silver began to cry, though she tried her best to hide it. It was never safe to shed tears in front of a guest.

“Don’t cry,” Retch crooned. “There’s no use crying when every problem in your life is yours alone.” He watched her wipe away the tears, knowing he had her attention. “You love to be miserable,” he continued, “because you get to pretend the misery is beyond your control. But you need to take some credit. I mean, you ruined her life for gods’ sake! The least you can do is be a better daughter. Then maybe she’ll be nicer to you.”

Silver turned away to hide her tears, wishing she had left earlier. “I don’t know why I even care,” Retch went on. “I’m not the one who has to tolerate you. Of course I could stick around for a while. Make your mother happy. I could…”

Silver’s mother began to stir. Retch immediately turned his attention to her, taking her hand to help her into bed. “Get out, Silver,” she croaked. “We need to finish our deal.” So Silver graciously crept outside, prepared to spend a cold night away from the duo.

The next morning, Retch decided to stay.

***

Silver was fifteen now, and she was out of patience. 

Retch was now the only patron to her mother’s bed, and a frequent one recently. Silver stayed quiet when Retch began showing up weekly. She never told her mother about what the man had said. She wouldn’t have cared anyway. So Silver stayed quiet when Retch showed up more often, dropping in unexpectedly with liquor and pills. She stayed quiet when the other suitors stopped coming, when there was no one else but Retch. She did not say a word when she had to hunt every day, just in case the consort stopped in for dinner. But now the man had been there for the past eight days, and Silver was out of patience.

Silver returned from her foraging at mid-day. As she entered the hut, she found her mother cleaning up the previous night’s carnage, while Retch still stirred in their bed. Silver approached cautiously and helped her mother gather the half-empty bottles. 

“Is he staying here every night now?” Silver whispered, afraid to ask but needing an answer.

“Mind your own damn business,” her mother snapped. “And have some respect for our guest.” Silver nodded, returning a mostly full bottle to the liquor shelf. On second thought, she slid it into her coat pocket. 

Her mother did not notice. “I’m sorry,” she went on, her face softening. “Retch is heading north this evening to buy more medicine. But when he returns, he will be here for quite a while.”

Silver did not respond. She finished cleaning up her mess and then hung her coat by the door. “I’d best prepare him supper before he leaves,” she spoke. So she started a fire and resolved to be a better host.

At nightfall, Silver grabbed her coat and crept out.

Retch was gone and her mother was comatose. She would have all the time she needed. Silver headed to the river… the river where she would have been left to die, had it not been a sin to throw away a life. In her right hand she clutched a bottle of whiskey. In her left hand, she held a canister.

Silver reached the river. Kneeling by the water, she placed the bottle on a rock and withdrew a shot glass to accompany it. Then she popped open the canister. Twenty four white tablets spilled into her palm. For the pain.

She supposed it is normal to shed tears when you reach your end. So when she poured the first shot of whiskey, her hands trembling, she did not feel bad for crying. No one else would do it for her.

Silver took a shot.

I don’t want her to find me like this.

So she took another.

She won’t even feel it.

So she downed one more.

I shouldn’t have to do this to her.

She thought the whiskey would make things make sense, but now she was afraid. The pills were all she had left, and all she had to do was throw them back. Twenty four was more than enough. 

So she held one up to the moonlight and tried to put it in her mouth. Even that proved to be too difficult. Silver imagined the tablets washing down her throat, dissolving, coursing through her body dissolving, and her intestines rotting, her whole body rotting, and she would feel it, she would lurch from the pain, and she would regret it, she would call for help, but there would be none, she would get no attention until she was too gone, and her mother waiting, in the cold dark waiting, for her daughter to come home, would get none, and her body, rotting in the river, would never go home again. 

And people don’t get over that.

So Silver dropped the pills. And she poured another shot. Then she finished off the bottle, because there was nothing left to do. And since nothing made sense, she returned the pills to her coat pocket. 

Silver took the empty bottle and tried to stand. She stumbled back toward the hut. And perhaps it was her stupor, but the girl became acutely aware of a pair of blue eyes, watching her in the darkness.

***

“Look at me, Silver.”

She couldn’t. Silver pressed her head against the table and hid the empty bottle in her lap. Because the thing before was nonsense, but she was in the real world again, and in the real world, people are ashamed to cry.

“Look at me,” her mother repeated.

Silver lifted her head, wiping the tears from her eyes, and was surprised to see her mother looking fearful, concerned. “I’m sorry,” Silver mustered. She handed her mother the empty bottle. “I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t.”

Her mother held the bottle, confused. When she registered what had happened, she dropped the bottle. She extended a hand toward her suffering daughter.

And backhanded her across the face.

“That was for stealing from me!” she blurted as Silver whimpered. She slapped Silver again. “That was for wasting my whiskey. And this is for thinking you can check out early.”

Silver was reeling, but her mother was not finished. “I am very disappointed in you,” she continued, “because you missed the lesson I have been trying to teach you for years.”

She paced across the hut, giving her daughter some space. “Life’s a bitch, Silver. I think we both know that. But it’s the only thing we have. If you just throw it away, then there was no point in sticking around this long. Do you really want your life to be that worthless? Huh?”

Silver shook her head.

“Then go do your chores. And carry on.”

Silver agreed to do that. But she did not tell her mother about the pills in her coat.

***

Silver was sixteen now, and she knew what that meant. In the eyes of the Crown, she was an adult.

She did not plan on celebrating. She arrived at the hut at daybreak with fresh water from the river, intent to lose herself in her chores today. Retch was away for the time being, and her mother was tidying the hut when Silver entered. Her mother tried to smile when she saw her, but there was a sadness behind her eyes. “Good morning Silver,” she spoke.

She never engaged in pleasantries. Silver tersely returned the greeting, though the act made her uncomfortable. Her mother was storing clothing away in a sack.

“Happy birthday,” she said. “Gods, I haven’t said that enough over the years. I’m sorry for that. Why don’t you just forget about your chores for today? Go take a walk. Enjoy the forest.”

Silver had never been given a day off. She was not prepared for this level of kindness, and was not sure how to react. But Retch would be back soon, and she would not miss an opportunity to slip away. “Thank you mother,” she managed. 

Silver opened the door, and her mother smiled. But her smile was tainted with sadness, by a melancholy known only to those who finally get the only thing they’ve ever wanted. And Silver left the hut.

She wandered for many hours, trying to enjoy her time alone. Inevitably she ended up at the banks of the river, the place where she almost did it. She sat by the water to collect her thoughts. But as she met the gaze of two blue eyes along the bank, she realized too late that she was not alone.

The man who had crept beside her was not a man- or if it was, Silver could not tell beneath the golden armor it wore. But its golden mask was carved into a man’s visage. The blue eyes she had seen were actually crystals embedded in the mask, which seemed to radiate. The golden man’s helmet was even adorned with a crown of gold. 

“Hello, Silver,” the man appeared to speak, its voice booming from an unseen source. “Happy birthday.”

“Wh-who are you?” she stammered. 

“I watched you at this very river last year,” the voice continued, ignoring her question. “I’m quite pleased you chose to stay.”

“You’re scaring me,” Silver warned, trying to inch away.

“You were scared then, too. You still made the right decision.”

“I was confused. I almost did something stupid. It won’t happen again.”

“Does your mother know you still carry the pills in your coat?”

Silver winced. “Please go away,” she whimpered. “I don’t know what you want.”

“Do you love your mother?”

“Of course I do. I think.”

“Then why aren’t you protecting her?”

“Huh?” Silver sprang to her feet.

“You know what happens today. And you left the hut anyway. You better run.” Silver jumped away from the golden man, unsure if he was being threatening. Yet the man did not move. She began to back away. “Go!” the man screamed, and Silver sprinted back to the hut.

The hut was empty when Silver arrived. Her mother had disappeared, as had anything of any value- as Silver searched the hut, she found that her mother’s jewelry, clothing, silverware, even the linens off her bed, were all gone. Her first thought was that someone must have robbed them. Whoever it was had only been gone for mere hours, and Silver knew they could be tracked.

She turned to the door, but a figure was blocking her path. Dazed and stumbling, Retch gripped the doorframe, blocking Silver inside.

“What are you doing? Where is my mother?” she demanded.

“Gone, I suppose,” the man drawled. 

“I want to see her.”

“I don’t think that’s likely.”

“Did you take her? Did you hurt her?”

“She’s alive, I promise you. Is she safe? Well, who can ever tell?”

“I want you to bring me to her.”

“Well that’s rough. Life’s a bitch, Silver. You should know that by now. Sometimes you’re gonna lose, and- no, that can’t be right.” Retch withdrew a crumpled paper from his coat and read it over. “Sometimes the bad guys are gonna win, and that’s just how the story goes,” he recited. 

“What?”

“Then improvise for a while to stall, and- ah, fuck it!” Retch tore up the paper and withdrew the pieces. “You get the point, yeah? I’m going back to your mother now. So don’t try to follow me!” He slammed the door, and Silver heard him storm off.

She remained in the hut stunned for a moment, then ran to the door. Standing in the doorway, she saw Retch’s marked and deliberate boot prints, heading north. Yet standing at the treeline north of the hut was the golden man, his crystalline eyes staring her down. Silver was too afraid to move. 

The golden man’s gaze bore into her, awaiting her decision. Should she follow Retch? Alone in the forest, with no possessions of her own, it seemed foolish. But there was nothing left to do. With one unsteady foot, Silver stepped into the daylight. The golden man nodded once, and disappeared into the forest. She knew the decision was made, that she would never get the chance to reconsider.

To her chagrin, Silver left her mother’s home forever.

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